The SpaceX Launch
History of SpaceX
SpaceX, formally the Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is a privately owned aerospace manufacturing company with a focus in space transport services. Famed tech billionaire and entrepreneur Elon Musk founded the company in 2002.
Elon Musk made his fortune originally as one of the founders of PayPal. He is now known for some of his other major initiatives including Tesla, the electric car manufacturer. SpaceX is estimated to be worth more than $21 billion.
The company was founded to reduce the costs of space transportation. Ultimately this could enable Mars to be colonized by human beings.
You may have read stories about the SpaceX launch recently, or about a SpaceX launch in the past few years.
Right now, SpaceX utilizes technology it developed itself, including the Falcon series launch vehicles and the Dragon series spacecrafts. Both of them are in active operation delivering payloads – like satellites – into orbit around the Earth. The Dragon is also able to return with payloads from the International Space Station.
Both are notable though for their potential to be reusable, which I talk about later on in the article.
SpaceX also developed and utilizes so called autonomous spaceport drone ships, or ASDSs. These platforms can move and adjust to perfectly meet rockets returning from orbit. The first successful landing on one of these platforms was in December of 2015.
The most recent SpaceX launch, as of the writing of this article, was the Falcon Heavy rocket. It’s unclear if the launch was successful.
Internet for All and the Hyperloop
In addition to all their work in space exploration, SpaceX also has been building a massive network of thousands of interconnected satellites in orbit. These would be owned and operated by SpaceX and be able to beam internet anywhere on the globe. The project would help fund the SpaceX plan to build a Mars colony. The project could be online as early as 2020 and could help beam internet to hard to reach spots on the globe where there is currently no internet.
SpaceX also sponsoring a Hyperloop competition near its headquarters in California. Tt built a one-mile track where teams of students and non-students can compete to build functioning hyperloop pods. Two competitions were held in January and August of 2017 and a third competition is underway. Elon Musk is a busy man!
The space game is primarily a game of private companies backed by notable billionaires. Blue Origins, headed by Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos is one. Virgin Galatic, part of the Virgin Group headed by Sir Richard Branson is another competitor of SpaceX. But both of them lack the same high profile and successes – like the recent SpaceX launch – that have propelled SpaceX into the public’s imagination. SpaceX focuses on reigniting dreams of space that have been largely dormant for the past half century.
That being said, Blue Origins has already successfully launched and landed a sub-orbital rocket and capsule system – New Shepard – five times.
And United Launch Alliance – which handles significant DOD and American intelligence contracts – is working on a prototype that would return its engines to earth via parachute.
SpaceX was the first privately funded liquid-propellant rocket to reach orbit with the Falcon SpaceX launch in 2009. It was also the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft with the Dragon in 2010.
SpaceX was the first private company to ever send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. They launched a Dragon to deliver a payload there (and return with scientific samples and other materials).
When it docked at the ISS above Australia in 2012. A NASA astronaut at the station, Donald Pettit, said “It looks like we’ve got us a Dragon by the tail.” At the time, reusable rockets, which SpaceX and others regard as vital to commercial space travel, had failed several times, and the future was uncertain. It would not be until this past year that the first reuse of an orbital rocket, with the Falcon 9 would prove to be successful.
SpaceX also had the first propulsive landing for an orbital rocket in 2015.
As of March 2017, SpaceX has since flown ten missions to the International Space Station. All of them were under a cargo resupply contract it has with NASA. SpaceX has also been working with NASA, who awarded them an additional development contract in 2011, to develop a human-rated Dragon. This Dragon is able to transport astronauts to the ISS and return them safely to Earth. If might not be long before we see a SpaceX launch with people!
In a different kind of SpaceX launch, Musk unveiled the so-called Interplanetary Transport System in September of 2016. It is a long range initiative by Musk and Space X to build the capacity to establish a colony on Mars. Musk estimated 10-20 years, but SpaceX is usually a few years late on deadlines. Even so, we could see SpaceX launch the first colonists to Mars within our lifetimes!
The Falcon Heavy, a variant on the Falcon 9, is due to be publically tested in 2018. It will carry Elon Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster playing Space Oddity by David Bowie and deliver it onto a trajectory reaching Mars’ orbit. When the first human settles reach Mars, Musk’s Tesla may be orbiting the planet and waiting to greet them.
One of the chief innovations necessary for such travel is a reusable rocket.
In March of 2017, the SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 incorporated a segment from a previous rocket that had flown a mission out of the Kennedy Space Center in Flordia. This marked the first reuse of an orbital rocket. The reused part – an orbit class booster – is one of the most expensive parts of the rocket.
If SpaceX or other space shuttle companies and agencies could reuse parts, the costs of sending materials – or people – to space would plummet. Reusability might be one of the major technological breakthroughs that revolutionizes space travel, allowing humanity to expand outward into the solar system.
Essentially, only having to build one rocket for every 10 trips, or 100 trips with refurbishments, would drastically reduce the cost of a SpaceX launch.
Perhaps the most astonishing development in the SpaceX saga was announced in February of 2017. Elon Musk said in a call with reporters that two people had paid for a private mission around the moon, with a tentative launch date in 2018. The trip would be on the Falcon Heavy, which has not yet been tested in a SpaceX launch.
The journey would take around a week and would travel 300,000 to 400,000 miles into space, which would be further than the record of 249,000 miles sent by the Apollo 13 mission in 1970. It would also be the first lunar mission involving human beings since Apollo 13.
The passengers, who Musk would only call “private citizens” had already made deposits. They will receive training and health and fitness tests. The launch could happen in 2018.
Billionaire Denis Tito was the world’s first space tourist, paying around $20 million on a flight to the International Space Station. The idea of seeing the world from far above the clouds has appealed to many, although few can afford it. More than 650 people – including Brad Pitt – have signed up to travel to space on Virgin Galatic’s shuttles. But they haven’t yet been proven to work safely.
The Future is in Space
The recent SpaceX launch is just one of many that have been to rekindle interest in the stars and the universe (including black holes!). They reignite our imaginations with images of far off places. The idea that humanity could achieve something as enormous as living among the stars is a source of tremendous hope. We’ll keep watching each SpaceX launch with eager anticipation as SpaceX and other companies move forward day by day towards making that a reality.
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